March 12, 2010

Franco Moretti's Graphs

In his recent study, Graphs, Maps, Trees Franco Moretti takes his analytical models ‘from three disciplines with which literary studies have had little or no interaction: graphs from quantitative history, maps from geography, and trees from evolutionary history’ (2007: 1-2). Moretti distances himself from academics that look to ‘French and German metaphysics’ and he commends instead the methodologies of ‘the natural and social sciences’ (2). I am going to discuss his findings in three blog entries:

• Graphs,
Maps ,
• and Trees.


The first section of Franco Moretti’s study Graphs, Maps, Trees is of course on graphs and it poses some interesting ideas about how critics formulate literary history. What Moretti plots on his graphs is the rise and fall of the novel in various cultures from Britain to Nigeria. From these graphs, he discovers ‘[a]n antipathy between politics and the novel’ (12), and he quotes Michael Denning who tells us that in times of radicalism ‘writers have usually chosen shorter and more public forms [to express the zeitgeist], writing plays, poems, journalism and short stories’ (Denning qtd. Moretti 2007: 11).



In mapping novelistic trends, Moretti wants to discover whether there are any patterns that emerge from approaching literature with such a broad, comparative scope. For example, he wonders whether the fall of novel reading in Japan has any relation to the decline of the novel in Britain or elsewhere. Is there some kind of historical pattern emerging? Between Braudel’s notion of longee durée and isolated events in literary history, Moretti poses ‘the – unstable – border country between them’: this is the cycle which is both repetitive and temporary (14).

Moretti likens cycles to genres, because both are ‘temporary structures’ and both have a limited ‘life-cycle’: ‘Instead of changing all the time and a little at a time, then, the system stands still for decades, and is “punctuated” by brief bursts of invention: forms change once, rapidly, across the board, and then repeat themselves for two-three decades’ (18). Thinking about why such cycles occur, Moretti suggests that, though evolution of genres is specific to the time (e.g. in eighteenth century Britian ‘amorous epistolary fiction being ill-equipped to capture the traumas of the revolutionary years’), it is ‘too much of a coincidence’ when a number of genres ‘disappear together from the literary field, and then another group and so on’ (20). Moretti believes the cause to be generational: ‘[W]hen an entire generic system vanishes at once, the likeliest explanation is that its readers vanished at once’ (20).

I find Moretti’s argument very interesting, but I do have some questions. For example, it is true that ‘amorous epistolary fiction’ declined during revolutionary years in eighteenth century Britain, but one might argue that it was reinvented in the novels of the nineteenth century in writers like Wilkie Collins (especially The Woman in White). So is it false to separate genres out in this way? Might not the Sensation novel be just another reinvention of the amorous epistolary novel? (This links to what Moretti writes about in the section on ‘Trees’ which I discuss later.)

I also have questions about Moretti’s discussion of cycles in relation to gender. Discussing the work of April Alliston, Moretti suggests that the ‘Great Gender Shift’ in the mid 1700s is merely part of an oscillating pattern: ‘[I]n all likelihood they are all observing the same comet that keeps crossing and recrossing the sky: the same literary cycle, where gender and genre are probably in synchrony with each other – a generation of military novels, nautical tales, and historical novels á la Scott attracting male writers, one of domestic, provincial and sensation novels attracting women writers, and so on’ (27). I find this statement to be rather worrying, because it seems to assume that women would be attracted to ‘domestic’ stories and it could be used as a very easy explanation for gender bias, when in fact many women writing subversive and powerful fiction did have problems when they tried to publish it. I don’t think that Moretti necessarily means to excuse the sidelining of women in literary history, but I think that this statement could use a qualification.

Overall though, I am sympathetic to Moretti’s ideas about ‘graphs’ and I like the idea of the cycle as the ‘hidden thread of history’ (26). The comparative approach is also very useful as Moretti demands ‘a theory, not so much of “the” novel, but of a whole family of novelistic forms’(30).

Further Reading

Benzon, William (2006) ‘Signposts for a Naturalistic Criticism’ Entelechy. Access online at HTTP: (accessed 12 March 2010).
Moretti, Franco (2007) Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History. London and New York: Verso.

- 2 comments by 1 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. More to come on maps and trees!

    12 Mar 2010, 16:49

  2. rick

    moretti is indeed a genius he should have worked on mapquest and Google maps to make them even more interactive

    11 Apr 2010, 02:25

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